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A New Russian History That’s Sensational For The Right Reasons

In histories from the Stalin era, Russia was depicted as a peaceful nation and the victim of foreign aggression.
In histories from the Stalin era, Russia was depicted as a peaceful nation and the victim of foreign aggression.
Ever since the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in October 1917, history in that country ceased to be a scholarly enterprise and has turned into a powerful tool of politics.

In the Marxist scheme, global events unfold as a result of historical processes and, as such, are inevitable. Thus the establishment of a Communist regime in Russia and its dependencies was preordained by its past and legitimized by it. This conception meant that historians were no longer free to interpret the past as they saw fit, but had to adhere to strict formulas that demonstrated the inevitability and hence the legitimacy of the Soviet Union.

In the 1920s, the party's pressures on the historical profession were relatively mild. But they hardened to an unprecedented degree in the following decade as Josef Stalin assumed complete control over the country. He quickly realized that nationalism had far greater appeal to the Russian population than did Marxism and put an end to the criticism of the imperial rulers' foreign policy: henceforth, Russia was to be depicted as having always been a peaceful nation and the perpetual victim of foreign aggression. Except for biology and genetics, no branch of learning was as tightly controlled in Stalinist and post-Stalinist Russia as history.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the heavy hand of the state has been lifted, and historians have been free to write at will, although the authors of school textbooks of history have had a hard time deciding how to treat Russia's past.

Now comes a sensational new textbook of Russia's modern history, a collective work by 43 authors headed by Professor A. N. Zubov called “A History Of Russia: The 20th Century” (“Istoriia Rossii: XX vek”) that was published in Moscow. In two thick volumes, totaling nearly 2,000 pages, it covers Russia's past from the accession of the last tsar, Nicholas II, in 1896 to 2007. Published in an edition of 5,000 copies, it has quickly sold out and is now in a second printing, which is quite remarkable for a country where intellectuals, the prime audience for such a work, tend to lack money for such expensive objects.

The book is sensational for several reasons.

First, it rejects the traditional nationalism that depicted Russia as the invariable victim of foreign aggression. Thus, the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop (really "Stalin-Hitler") pact of 1939 is fully described, as is the subsequent Soviet invasion and occupation of eastern Poland. So is the Katyn massacre of Polish officers. The book minces no words about the building of the Berlin wall and the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. All this provides a refreshing contrast to previous Russian histories.

Second, the new history draws on foreign accounts. This was virtually taboo before, when it had been accepted as a truism that foreigners neither know anything about Russia nor can be trusted to write about it impartially. The authors of this volume not only list foreign works in the bibliography, but frequently cite their judgments.

Third, they deal not only with the government, but with society. In the introduction, Zubov writes that he and his associates "devote no less attention to the history of society, the history of the people and their moods, than to the history of authority and the state." This is most refreshing when dealing with such episodes as the revolution and war, when the "masses" -- commonly depicted as passive bystanders -- emerge as living beings with fears and hopes.

One can only hope that this work presages a new turn in Russia's self-image, that it signals Russians are ready, at long last, to look at themselves without colored glasses and see themselves as they really were and are.

Richard Pipes is Baird Professor of History, Emeritus, at Harvard University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.